Caught in God

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I have a love/hate relationship with today’s Gospel lesson. Actually, it’s mostly a hate relationship… The whole idea of going out and ‘catching’ people, as if I’m trying to get them to take the bait of Jesus Christ – hook, line, and sinker. Additionally, the typical reason we catch fish is to eat them, consume them. The kingdom of God needs fully alive people, not dead fish. And, catching people sounds so impersonal and unauthentic, which is contrary to Jesus’s way, and yet, for so long the basic goal of Christianity. Make people believe – all supposedly supported by Jesus’s declaration, “From now on you will be catching people.”

Ultimately, that’s where my uncomfortableness with this text lies.

I do know it’s a metaphor, and comparisons within metaphors will only stretch so far, so I’m aware that I’m overreacting a little bit. But, it’s also true that Christianity has suffered from tunnel vision, often focusing on what we believe is right, but failing to see or appreciate the larger picture. We miss the ocean for the fish, if you will.

It’s also true that in recent polls more than 50% of Christians believe it’s wrong to ‘evangelize,’ to ‘catch fish,’ if you will. In today’s global world we are becoming more personally aware of the cultural temperature around faith, and especially how (or if) we share our faith understanding. Faith conversations can quickly put others on the defensive. In very theological terms, talking about Jesus can feel ‘icky.’

And yet, for those of us who try to follow Jesus, we believe there is something life-giving and life-changing about being in an authentic relationship with Jesus. At least for me, that’s what keeps me bumbling along behind Jesus when the yuck of religion can seem so ugly. No matter how lost I might get, I cannot deny the truth that Jesus ‘caught’ me when I had all but drowned in the waters of life.

And so, I’m left in a quandary between not wanting to force feed people and wanting others to know they are loved unconditionally – God’s grace and forgiveness are constant and sure.

What to do?

Maybe too often our focus with this scripture has been on catching ‘others,’ rather than simply being ‘caught’ ourselves. And so, I’d like to reframe the text a bit and focus on another aspect of the reading: the encounter between Simon Peter and Jesus.  

First, to recap: Jesus encounters some fishermen who had an unfruitful night on their fishing expedition, who are now cleaning their nets before hanging it up for the day. It’s not been a good day for them. I think in our context it’s hard to grasp, but they’re going home with nothing – no money, no food, nothing. One of those, ‘I just want to hide under the covers all day’ days. They have been pushed to their limits and have given up.

This desperate moment is when Jesus chooses to show up. This is critical.
And the next point is even more critical. In this desperate moment Jesus asks them for a small favor. This guy they DON’T know asks Simon Peter to take him out for a little boat ride. You know, see the sights. Honestly, Jesus has some nerve: I’m tired, irritated, and cold.  If I’m Simon Peter I would’ve told Jesus to, “Shove off,” and maybe he did want to tell Jesus that, but he didn’t.

They oblige.
Jesus uses this time to get to know the fellas: teach them, ask about their families, their lives. It must’ve been pretty significant, because when Jesus invites Simon Peter to put out into the deep, he does it.

This point is what captured my fascination this week. Instead of reading this part literally, I heard this part as metaphor, as an invitation from Jesus to dive into the depths of life, not just go fishing.

I mean, what were they talking about while they were out there?

Whatever it was we know that when Simon Peter does put into the deep, he is suddenly overwhelmed. This closeness he’s experienced becomes scary. It’s as if when he sees all those fish – so many that his nets are breaking, so many that the boats are sinking – that he sees everything that could be, if he’d just take a risk.

This is a huge moment of trust and vulnerability. I imagine Jesus holding out his hand saying, “Come on, Simon, let’s go all in, see what’s beneath the surface.”

This invitation from Jesus to put out into the deep, to go to new depths with Jesus and with others is a sharp contrast to our penchant for predictable and detached.

Which got me thinking about a psychological study conducted 20 years ago by Arthur Aron…
[Didn’t see that one coming, did you?]

Some of you may have heard of this experiment, it’s been dubbed, “36 Questions that Lead to Love,” however Aron was examining development of interpersonal relationships and what makes them ‘deep.’ Not just love. However, in the original experiment, the two participants ended up married 6 months later, hence the ‘love’ moniker.

A few years ago, the questions involved in the study were revived by a New York Times columnist who tried to recreate the experiment, to see if there was anything to it…
Which then led to some social media hype and societal interest.

Was there a formula for love? Some irresistible bait?

As a quick overview, the parameters of the study require the participants to answer a series of increasingly personal questions, alternating back and forth. There are 36 questions total. And then, once they finish answering all the questions, they stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes.

The questions begin rather innocuously:
“Would you like to be famous?”
“What would constitute a perfect day for you?”
“Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.”

And then they ratchet up to things like:
“What is your most treasured memory?”
“What is your most terrible memory?”
“Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.”

With the final set up questions becoming more probing, including:
“Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share … ‘“
“When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”
“Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”

Those are just a sampling of the questions…

The movement of the questions gradually builds trust and vulnerability. The questions force a kind of accelerated intimacy. Answering Arthur Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on the narrative of ourselves that we like to present to the world, but it is a narrative that keeps us on the surface of life. Putting out into the deep can rock the boat and make us feel unstable and sea sick.

I haven’t actually done this experiment…
I vacillate between being intrigued and horrified by it.
There’s part of me the wants to hear what someone really admires in me; part of me that wants to share my darkest fears; part of me that wants to talk about stuff only I know about myself.
But then there’s the larger part that knows IF I share those things, THEN I am bound to that person in some regard for life.

Taking that leap means diving in deep.
And I’m not a great swimmer. I’m a pro at treading water.   

In the 36 Questions Experiment the last part is to look into one another’s eyes for four minutes without saying anything. I think this is because it’s often said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. However, what I imagine would be most terrifying about those four minutes wouldn’t be taking the time to really see another person, but actually letting someone really see me.

I think this is what happens to Simon Peter when he pushes Jesus away and shouts, “Get away from me. I’m a sinful man.” He is suddenly faced with the truth that he has lived his life in the shallows and this man, Jesus, has really seen him for who he is.
Jesus could reject him.
But, instead Jesus catches him.

Simon Peter is caught in Jesus’ love, in His authenticity, in His patience, in His vulnerability, in His acceptance. Despite the fact that Jesus knows all of Simon Peter’s answers to all 36 questions (and then some), Jesus still wants to be in relationship with Simon Peter.

And despite the fact that Jesus knows all of your and my answers to all the questions, Jesus still wants to be in relationship with us.
Jesus catches us too.

But, before we wrap this all up, back to the catching fish part.
The more we are attuned to our own depths and shadows and desires, the more able we are to share the mysterious and elusive part of ourselves called spirit, which means we become more deeply connected to those around us.
And to God. 

When Jesus encourages us, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching people,” it’s so much more than a command, or ethical statement, or a religious imperative. It is a summons to be authentic and vulnerable and available to one another, because that’s how people get caught up in God. You don’t need 36 Questions to get deep with others, you only need trust that you are already enough and share yourself with others, because deep calls to deep.
I guess the only question left is, “Will you answer the call?”